The arrival of the “beat girl” archetype in Japanese culture back in the 60s came with numerous girl rockers taking the helm of bands, cranking out garage rock sounds and pop-inspired hits some of which would go on to sell more than a million copies (such as the 1965 smash sung in English by Emy Jackson “Crying in a Storm”). Of the many that were a part of this movement, one of the most notable was a woman often referred to as the “Japanese Aretha Franklin,” Akiko Wada.
Born Akiko Iizuka (according to her website) to Korean parents, she soon adopted her maternal uncle’s name (Wada) and started skipping school (before dropping out of high school entierly) to enjoy the nightlife of Osaka. At the age of seventeen she had added “runaway” to her growing rebellious teenage resume after a trip to Tokyo. Wada’s “look” was perceived as “unconventional” even during her childhood. In elementary school Wada was already over five-feet tall and by the time she stopped growing she stood approximately 5’9. Not only did Wada sound more like a man she was also taller than most of her male counterparts on the hit parade. Due to her unique looks and vocal style she was often referred to as being “butch.”
It’s important to note here that being labeled as “butch” is a distinct inference of homosexuality. And being gay in Japan isn’t merely frowned upon, it is also considered an “unacceptable” lifestyle (though there has been some progress over the last two decades). Despite assumptions regarding her sexuality Wada has been married to a man (photographer Koji Iizuka) for the past 35 years.
Wada would embark on her recording career in 1968, singing on an astronomical number of records (somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 singles) since the release of her first single “Hoshizora no Kodoku” (“The Solitude of the Starry Sky”). Fast-forward to 2016 and the unstoppable Wada shows no signs of slowing down. Her latest release “All Right!!!” came out in July of this year—three months after her 66th birthday.
Wada also appeared in a few memorable films, a few which audiences outside of Japan may be familiar with such as the 1970 Japanese chick biker-flick (the first of the long-running franchise) Alleycat Rock: Female Boss where Akiko gets to play the cycle-riding biker girl “Ako.” Wada would reprise the role of “Ako” in the follow-up film, Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo. Wada has also hosted her own TV show, Akko ni Omakase (“Leave It To Akko”), as well as a radio show DJ Akko No Panic Studio. I’ve included a number of cool tracks from Wada’s vast catalog for you to listen to below and the groovy trailer for Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo (which was lovingly remastered back in 2014 by Arrow Films) that features Wada looking larger than life, rocking out in a sweet brown pantsuit.
The trailer for the 1970 film ‘Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo’ featuring Akiko Wada.
Akiko Wada on the cover of her single ‘Old Diary,’ 1974
Akiko Wada’s 1974 single ‘Old Diary.’
Akiko Wada’s first single from 1968, ‘Hoshizora no Kodoku’ or ‘The Solitude of the Starry Sky.’
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Female Convict Scorpion’: The Japanese women-in-prison movie that elevated exploitation to high art
Fuzzed-out Japanese psych band The Mops cover The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and The Animals